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Interview with Seymour Hersh


Originally published in La Repubblica (www.repubblica.it), 26 June 2018

He is a giant of journalism. At the same time, he is an eternal outsider to the American journalism establishment, an establishment too close to the circles of power. At the age of eighty-one, Seymour Hersh has just published "Reporter: A Memoir", a powerful book about his life as an investigative reporter whose investigations - like the one of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, which earned him the Pulitzer when he was young freelancer, or the investigation on torture at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war- have greatly contributed to creating the legend of American investigative journalism. "Reporter" is full of facts and pervaded by a skepticism towards power which is increasingly rare. It is also a frank tale of the hard and meticulous work and the tremendous stubborness that a reporter needs to investigate some of the darkest corners of the government, entering into collision course with editors – Hersh ended up leaving the New York Times and today he publishes his stories in the London Review of Books - and also admitting the limits of journalism. "It would be wonderful to say that my reporting on Abu Ghraib changed the course of the war and ended torture, but of course nothing like that happened, just as the My Lai story had not ended the Vietnam war or its brutality", Hersh writes. But at the same time, he closes his book celebrating journalism: “I've spent most of my career writing stories that challenge the official narrative, and have been rewarded mightily and suffered slightly for it. I wouldn't have it any other way". Repubblica has interviewed Seymour Hersh.

This is an intense time, your country is very divided and all the reporters are chasing the so-called Russiagate. But you aren’t writing about it…

«I’ve been watching Libya, Hillary Clinton, the American government since 2012, very closely. As for Russiagate, I remain skeptical about much that has been written. That has always been my stance. But I will tell you, the press corps underestimates Trump at their own peril. Their attacks on him help him. He’s gone up 8 points in the last 2 months. This is a man - people don't understand - he beat 13 Republicans in the primaries. The Republicans, the people he beat, had more than 200 years of political experience, he had zippo[zero]. And yet he managed to destroy two dynasties, he destroyed the Bush dynasty and he destroyed the Clinton dynasty. I mean, it's not magic, whatever he’s doing with this crazy tweeting, and the talking and the yapping, and the constant talking, he's dominating the news. Is the American press focused on Yemen? No, they're focused on him!».

One of your most powerful revelations concerned torture in Iraq. How do you look at the nomination of Gina Haspel as the new head of the CIA, considering her role in torture?

«I, of course, have a different view than everybody else. Let's leave aside torture for a second. She’s clearly the brightest person we’ve had running the CIA. She’s the most articulate, and the most composed person - just from her testimony - we’ve had running the CIA, since I can remember. Because we’ve had these politicians – Panetta, and Brennan, who was nothing but a flunky for the White House. And now we have somebody running the [CIA] - and the only thing I know about her that other people might not know - I know something about the quality of the intelligence she’s turning out, and it’s very high.

As for torture, I’m one of those people that remember: there was a man named John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. He was a nineteen year-old boy who was captured by the Americans right after 9/11, when they attacked the Taleban. The United States responded to Bin Laden's attack on us by attacking the Taleban (laughs), who had nothing to do with it (laughs), and we’re now eighteen years into that war. He was captured, and he was an American. He lived in California, I think his parents divorced when he was sixteen or seventeen. Most kids - I’m just assuming - your parents divorce, you’re terribly upset, you run off and you do drugs.

This kid went to South Asia - he knew Arabic, and joined the Taleban (laughs). There was a court case against him, he’s been sentenced to 20 years in jail. The American government never offered any evidence he did anything militarily. He never raised his weapon against anything, he just was there, trying to train. So he gets captured, he gets shot, he’s taken to an American base, he’s thrown, naked, it was a facility we have - when we ship bombs overseas, they come in a big container, and they used that container for him. He was in there in very cold weather for at least two-three, maybe more days, in very cold weather, naked, with his wounds not treated for a week.

He was then put on a ship, and God knows what happened to him on that ship, interrogated and all that, and then convicted for twenty years. Lieutenant Calley, who was involved in the [My Lai] massacre of 570 people, he served three months in jail. This guy does twenty years. And the torture was there, the press were writing about the torture with approval. That was in December of 2001, and so you’re telling me that everybody in America and the world didn't know what we were doing? My view is that we’re all guilty in America, all of us, we all knew what was going on, John Walker Lindh was right there. I wrote about it in the New Yorker, but nobody cared. I mean it was just unbelievable. If you want to single one person out, and you take the high road on torture, you really have to say to yourself: what did you do to stop the torture? What did I do to stop the torture? I wrote a story, that didn’t do anything».

There is very little debate: if you look at the anti-war movement, as of today, it seems like it’s dead…

«Yeah, but I don't see your country with open arms in the treatment of immigrations either. My country deserves a lot of blame, but we’re not alone in cruelty and mistreatment of others. And the whole immigration issue is really - you see how ugly it’s gotten, politically, with all the conservative parties winning elections, not only in Italy, but elsewhere, all across the continent. It’s a phase, maybe we’ll get through it, I don’t know».

There is a fundamental tension between being an outsider to the power circles, as you have always been, and having access to high profile sources. How can a reporter maintain his or her integrity?

«I’ll tell you what the trick is for me. First of all - even when I worked at the New York Times, at the New Yorker, I was never required to have access. I didn't cover the White House – if you are covering the White House, you are in a terrible position, because you have to have access to the President and to the people who work for him, which means there’s only a certain amount of hostility, or difference, or anger you can exhibit.

What I’ve done in my life, and I’ve been very lucky, is I’ve always looked for those people – and there are people like this in the American government, in the CIA, in the national security area, in the State Department, even in politics – there are people who - if you’re in the government you take an oath of loyalty, when you’re signed in, you take an oath to the Constitution. It’s not to the general that’s in charge of you, or your boss, or to the President, it’s to the Constitution. And so I look for those people, who are inside, who really believe that their job is to support the Constitution.I know these people inside, who are willing to be critical. I have to protect them, and I do protect them. I have many people who talk to me even with this government».

You have always faced the same dilemma: where to publish your investigations…


What do you suggest to a determined investigative reporter who wants to challenge the official narrative and faces the same dilemma?

«You have to have an awful lot of patience. What happened with me - and it also means I compromise. There was a certain point I couldn't do it anymore, where I worked. But let me tell you something: I may be successful, but believe me. What you want to do, is - you want to get a contract to publish something, right? So you’re going walk in to the desk of the editor of your paper and you’re going to say: look what I have, I have a big, fat, dead rat, full of lice, I’m going to throw this dead rat story, and here’s what this story is gonna do: it’s gonna cost you money, you might get sued, you might not even in the end be able to publish, and spend a lot of money, and certainly you’re gonna get anger from the politicians, and anger from readers, and lose – some people will cancel their circulation.

This is what I do for a living. I’m dropping dead rats, full of lice, all over editors’ desks. And no matter what happens, after a little while the editors get sick of it. I was fine at the New York Times, until I could write about Vietnam, until I began to start writing about American presidents, and the New York Times didn’t know what to do with that, because they don’t write about American presidents, they always respect them. And so the problem we have in America is their newspapers are always American first, which is not their job, their job is to be World first. All I can say to you is that you will find people that will publish it».